How To Experience The Panama Canal

How To Experience The Panama Canal


There is so much more to see and do in Panama other than just the Panama Canal.  Yet no trip to Panama would be complete without experiencing the greatest engineering feat the world has ever known.  Some may save for years to be able to afford a luxury cruise of the Panama Canal.  But the best way to see the Panama Canal is to experience it through an interactive and much more affordable full or partial transit, which are done in a single day.

If time does not permit a full or partial transit, be sure to at least spend time at the Miraflores Visitors Center where you can witness colossal vessels squeeze through the walls of the locks.

Panama Canal Travel

Panama Canal Full Transit Tour

The most comprehensive way to experience the Panama Canal is to take a full transit which enables you to traverse the entire country, beginning on the Pacific side at the Flamenco Marina located on Amador Causeway.  This epic voyage begins as the vessel heads north toward the Pacific entrance to the Panama Canal, providing a spectacular view of the Bay of Panama and the modern Panama City skyline.  After passing underneath the Bridge of Americas, it will not be long before the ship enters Miraflores Locks, which is the southernmost of the two sets of Pacific locks, as it ascends 18 meters in two different steps.

After passing through the second set of locks on the Pacific side which are called Pedro Miguel Locks, and ascending 9 meters, the ship travels through the famous Gaillard Cut which is where the Chagres River flows into the Canal.  It is also referred to as Culebra Cut because its curves resemble those of a snake (culebra).  This is one of the highlights of the trip because it is carved through the Continental Divide.  It is also where the work is being done to expand the Panama Canal.

Passing through the manmade Gatun Lake, which was once the largest man-made lake in the world and formed by constructing the Gatun Dam across the Chagres River, you can see the Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute at Barro Colorado on your way to Gatun Locks.

The final and only set of locks on the Caribbean side is the Gatun Locks.  There it requires two sets of locks to lower ships a total of 26 meters through three distinct sets of chambers.  After transiting the Gatun Locks, passengers disembark at Colon and return to Panama City where this amazing journey of a lifetime began.


Panama Canal Partial Transit Tour

If time does not allow for the full Canal Transit, the next best way to experience the Panama Canal is to take a Partial Panama Canal Transit.  Most common is the southbound route which means the vessel begins at the north end of the Gailard cut, where the Chagres River flows into the Canal. The Gaillard Cut (also known as Culebra Cut because its curves resemble a snake) is one of the main points of interest for visitors because it was carved through the Continental Divide and this section of the Canal is full of history and geological value. Traveling the Cut’s 13.7 kilometers on the way to Pedro Miguel Locks provides a great opportunity to observe the work in progress for the epic Panama Canal expansion project.

Before reaching the Pedro Miguel Locks at the southern end of the Cut, you will be able to view the picturesque Centennial Bridge which crosses over the Canal. Next, the ship enters the Pedro Miguel Locks, which is northernmost of the two sets of locks on the Pacific side.  Once in the chamber, the vessel is lowered 9 meters in one single step.

You will then enter Miraflores Lake, which is a small artificial body of fresh water that separates Pedro Miguel from Miraflores Locks, the latter being the final set of locks before reaching the Pacific Ocean. At Miraflores Locks the vessel is lowered 18 meters in two distinct steps.  After passing underneath the Bridge of Americas, the ship will enter the Pacific Ocean where passengers are afforded spectacular views of the Bay of Panama and the modern Panama City skyline.  It is an amazing ending to a truly epic journey.Panama Canal Gatun Locks

Miraflores Locks Visitors Center

Regardless of whether you have the opportunity to experience the full or partial Panama Canal Transit, you will not want to miss spending some time at the Miraflores Locks Visitors Center.  With its four-story Visitors Center and Museum, you can learn all about the history and construction of the Panama Canal.   and then go up on the observation deck to witness the ships transiting the Locks.  In addition to the observation deck, the massive complex contains a four-story museum, a theater playing Canal documentaries in English and Spanish, and an excellent restaurant and bar.    The best time to see the colossal Panamax tankers transiting the Canal is around five o’clock in the afternoon.  There you can enjoy dinner and drinks at one of the most spectacular settings in the world!

Gatun Locks Visitors Center

The Gatun Locks are located on the Atlantic, or Caribbean side of Panama and link Lake Gatun with the Atlantic Ocean.  Because there are three sets of chambers in addition to the approach channel, the Gatun Locks are truly an impressive site at nearly a mile long from end to end.  Although facilities are not as developed as they are at Miraflores, Canal purists will not want to miss visiting the observation center at Gatun Locks.  There is an observation platform up a long flight of stairs that offers a panoramic view of Gatun Locks, the Caribbean entrance to the Panama Canal, and Lago Gatun (Lake Gatun).  What is most impressive is how close the tankers are as they squeeze through the locks.  It almost feels as if you can reach out and touch them!


Construction of the Panama Canal

Though the history of building a canal connecting two oceans dates all the way back to Spain’s King Charles I, the first attempt in earnest was not made until 1880 by Suez Canal architect Ferdinand de Lesseps. Despite protests by engineers as to the impracticality of building a sea-level canal, de Lesseps was convinced it was the only way and he was too stubborn to abandon the dream.  But ultimately the impenetrable Panamanian jungle, torrential downpours, rampant mosquito-borne illnesses such as Malaria and Yellow Fever, growing financial debts, and the deaths of about 20,000 workers caused the French to finally give up the endeavor.

Following the failure of the French, the U.S. got involved.  The Hay-Bunau-Varilla Treaty, named for U.S. Secretary of State John Hay and French canal engineer Philippe Bunau-Varilla, was signed with Panamá on November 18, 1903.  It granted the U.S. possession of the Canal Zone which included the use, occupation, and sovereign control of a 16km-wide (10-mile) area of land.  The controversial Treaty also granted the U.S. rights to annex additional land as needed for construction of the Canal

The U.S. officially began construction of the Canal in 1904 after both Panamá and the U.S. ratified the treaty and Panamá received a payment of US $10 million dollars.  During the 10 years it took to build the Canal, the seemingly insurmountable task of eradicating Yellow Fever and Malaria was accomplished.  The Panama railroad was overhauled and highly skilled engineers and personnel were brought in.  The already sizeable workforce of Afro-Caribbeans was nearly tripled and entire communities were built from scratch just to support the workers.

Finally about 10 years after construction of the Panamá Canal had begun; the impossible was made possible – a path had been carved out of the continental divide with the construction of an elevated canal system and the creation of the largest man-made lake in the world.  January 7, 1914 marked the date that the first self-propelled ocean going vessel, The Alexandre La Valley, made the complete transit of the Canal.  Later on August 15, 1914 the Panamá Canal was officially inaugurated with the passage of the U.S. cargo and passenger vessel, the Ancon.  Remarkably the 52-mile long waterway was completed under budget and ahead of schedule at a total cost of US $352 million.


How the Panama Canal Operates

The Panama Canal operates 24 hours a day, 365 days a year with average transit times through the Canal being 8 to 10 hours.  The average amount of time a ship is in actual Canal waters is 24 to 30 hours.  The cost of the toll depends on ship measurement parrameters.  As an example, a ship up to 50 feet long is charged a base fee of $800 USD and a ship up to 80 feet long is assessed a base fee of $1,300 USD.

The most important and basic component for the operation of the Canal is water.  Panama was chosen as the ideal location for an ocean to ocean canal due to the presence of the mighty Chagres River, an abundance of rainfall, and the narrow strip of land known as the isthmus of Panama.Boats on Panama Canal

A dam was built near the Chagres River (a navigable lake) near the Caribbean side to create Lake Gatun, which lies 26 meters above sea level.  Lake Gatun provides all of the water needed for the operation of the Panama Canal lock operations.  It was once the largest artificial lake in the world.

Ships transiting the Canal from the Atlantic side enter Gatun Locks after 26 million gallons of fresh water from Lake Gatun are spilled into the ocean in about 8 minutes.  Typically a Panamax Tanker fully loaded takes about two hours to transit Gatun Locks.  Once a ship exits and continues its journey toward the Pacific side, it must pass through Culebra Cut, which is about a 14 kilometer long trench that was dug through a small mountain range.  It gets its name which is “snake” in English because of its s-like shape that resembles a snake.

Once past Culebra Cut, the ship arrives at Pedro Miguel Locks.  There it drops 9.5 meters in just one step to reach the level of Lake Miraflores.  After crossing the small lake that is only about 1,600 meters long, it arrives at the third set of locks and gateway to the Pacific Ocean, Miraflores Locks.  There it is lowered two more tiers to the level of the Pacific Ocean, where the tanker passes under the iconic Bridge of Americas, finally reaching the open sea of the Pacific Ocean.